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Tribal Warfare 

It’s Indian vs. Indian with Arnold in the middle, as the fight over the flood of money from reservation casinos heats up

Thursday, Sep 30 2004
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Page 8 of 10

Jones begins a spirited and deeply passionate monologue that I scramble to jot down. He tells of his own sense of betrayal by the Agua Caliente. In 1998, when Proposition 5, the measure that initially legalized Indian casinos, was on the ballot, Jones was part of the campaign staff.

“I was out there organizing the gay vote for the Indians,” he says. “It was all based on my boyhood memories from Michigan, where I saw the terrible poverty, the tarpaper shacks on the reservation. But this whole thing has made me terribly cynical. This Agua Caliente is what I call the Wal-Mart tribe . . . A lot of Californians voted for Prop. 5 for good reasons, not just for more gambling. They wanted to do the right thing for the tribes, it was heartfelt. Now, I think we were just plain naive. I see the Agua Caliente as a big corporation that has only 350 stockholders . . . The turning point for me was last year. I got into some discussions with union members and what pissed me off was the health-care issue. Look, I’ve had AIDS for 19 years, and when I see the millions of dollars the tribe is raking in while it’s bullying its workers to go on welfare to get their kids covered, it’s a little too much to take . . . Nationwide now, I think we are starting to see a backlash against aggressiveness by the tribes. This fight here looks like it’s going to be another Inglewood. Here’s another fat corporation that’s trying to ignore all the needs and rules of the local community. What we saw in Inglewood was that all of Wal-Mart’s millions, with all their arrogance, couldn’t satisfy the outrage of the community. So if the Agua Caliente want an Inglewood here, we’ll give ’em an Inglewood.”

The next afternoon, I accompany the ACLU’s Franzen and a couple of other activists to the regularly scheduled Palm Springs City Council meeting. Cheryl Schmit has plans to speak during the public-comments portion, and when her two minutes are granted, she asks the recently elected council to reconsider its approval of the tribe’s plans for Section 14 and warns that if they don’t, Palm Springs could become the center of a statewide battle.

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Mayor Ron Oden, derided by the activists as “Rubber-Stamp Ron,” blankly says, “Thank you,” and moves on to the next speaker. In his State of the City address last January, the mayor, a gay African-American, called the tribe’s opponents “masters of deception.”

It’s anybody’s guess how the vote will go in Palm Springs. There’s certainly no institutionalized resistance to the tribe’s expansion plans. Four of five of the council members are firm allies. The local newspaper also eschews bucking the tribe. And there isn’t exactly a battery of nonprofits and unions in town. For his part, the Agua Caliente tribe’s top planning officer predictably brushed aside any significance to Measure U’s qualifying for a vote. He told reporters that the referendum would have no effect on the development of Section 14. As far as the tribe is concerned, he said, “The only comment we have is, it’s business as usual.”

 

The state gambling battle exploded this week on TV stations up and down the coast, as the airwaves were saturated with an estimated $10 million in commercial spots for and against Propositions 68 and 70. As much as $75 million has been marshaled by the various dueling tribes and racetrack operators, enough to guarantee a noisy and potentially bloody fight all the way up to Election Day on November 2.

The pro-68 spots feature enraged suburbanites claiming they were snookered into supporting Indian gaming without knowing they were unleashing a greedy new industry. The anti-68 ads, financed by the Rumsey and other tribes, praise the new compacts reached with the governor. Then there are the pro–Prop. 70 ads, underwritten by the Agua Caliente and San Manuel tribes, that claim to offer Californians a better deal than the Schwarzenegger compacts (in spite of independent analyses that indicate otherwise).

But in this high-stakes race to control the mushrooming expansion of Indian gaming, Governor Schwarzenegger still seems to have the upper hand. A mid-August Field Poll showed public support for the Agua Caliente’s Prop. 70 to be precipitously collapsing, barely reaching 30 percent approval. That marked a dramatic drop-off of 20 points in two months.

An even greater collapse was noted for Prop. 68, the measure that would break the Indian casino monopoly and allow slot machines to operate in the card clubs and racetracks that have so far raised more than $22 million to back their effort. Tribes opposing the measure have come up with an even greater amount of funding, and are ready and willing to spend whatever it will take to force the folding of Prop. 68 because of its threat to the Indian monopoly on state slot machines.

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